Justin Cayton was one of the first off the plane Monday as he and his fellow airmen made an emotional Memorial Day return to Shaw Air Force Base after 4 1/2 months in Iraq.
Cayton, a 22-year-old senior airman who was one of 300 returning to Shaw, had good reason for his haste.
Her name is Morgan Cayton. She is 4 months old and shares her young father’s blue eyes. But the two had never shared an embrace — until Monday, when Justin Cayton stepped off that plane, collected his baby girl from his wife, Jessica, held her in his arms, kissed her and cried.
“It’s a wonderful experience,” Justin Cayton said after multiple hugs and kisses from Jessica and the small army of family members who had gathered with other military relatives to meet the returning airmen. “To go over and defend my country and then come home to my wife and my baby girl — it’s the greatest feeling in the world.”
Morgan Cayton was born two days after her father was deployed. Family members still delight in telling the story of her birth, how Jessica’s labor started and then inexplicably stopped — just long enough for her father to get to Iraq and view the birth by webcam.
“She had a mind of her own,” 21-year-old Jessica Cayton said. “She didn’t come until he was ready.”
Justin Cayton kept in touch with his wife and baby by computer. His wife said the computer visits made things easier, but Justin got emotional as the time of their reunion drew near.
“He called me crying two or three days ago,” Jessica Cayton said. “He said he couldn’t sleep. He said, ‘I’m so ready for this.’”
And now the Caytons, like so many others who were reunited with airmen from the 77th Fighter Squadron at Shaw on Monday, are ready for the simple pleasures of some time together with family and friends. Few had elaborate plans for the holiday.
Mark Waldron, a 37-year-old tech sergeant, was heading to a cookout his wife, Kristi, put together. A 16-year veteran, Mark has been deployed more times than Kristi cares to remember.
“It never gets easier,” Mark Waldron said, as his son and two daughters formed a circle around his legs and began telling him all that he had missed during his deployment.
While Waldron missed more than he wished, there is still plenty he’s home just in time to see: his son’s last baseball game of the season and his graduation from fifth grade as well as a class party for one of the girls.
There are eager family members in Richmond, Va., waiting for 20-year-old Austin Ludwig to make it back up there. His father, 52-year-old Kurt Ludwig, didn’t want to wait in Virginia.
He sat in a hangar at Shaw with an oversized poster of his strapping son, posing in T-shirt and fatigues with a bicep flexed.
Asked whether he’s proud of his son, Kurt Ludwig, who had served in the Air Force from 1978-1984, just exhaled and shook his head.
“He hasn’t complained not one time since he’s been gone,” Kurt Ludwig said. “Not one time.”
No matter the duration, Kurt Ludwig said, the deployments are hard, harder sometimes for loved ones left behind than for those serving overseas.
That’s a reality Kristi Waldron understands.
She said her children struggled with their father’s previous deployment, a six-month stint in Iraq that forced him to miss Christmas in 2008.
The absence, and the knowledge that other children don’t get the joyous homecoming they were looking forward to, made Kristi Waldron answer some hard questions.
“They’ve been asking why some of the daddies died,” she said. “The only thing I can tell them is their daddy wanted to do this for his country. This was a big thing for him.”